As a health coach at Parsley Health , helping people change their habits to improve their health is something I do every day. I’ve personally seen the impact that changing simple behaviors has on shaping—and improving—one’s quality of life (including my own). Because nearly 90 percent of health is socially determined , adopting health-promoting habits such as improving your nutrition, increasing your physical activity, getting better sleep , and managing your stress can decrease your risk of disease and potentially extend your lifespan. But even when we know that changing our habits can help us feel better and live longer, why is it still so hard to do?
In theory, habit formation should be simple: repeat an action consistently in the same context and it will become automatic, like washing your hands after you go to the bathroom or putting on a seatbelt after getting into a car. Associate the context with the action long enough, and it’ll become second nature. When it comes to our diet and lifestyle habits, though, what often gets in the way of our success is the changing contexts of our moods, emotions, life stressors, and our resistance to uncomfortable change.
Working with my members at Parsley Health, I’ve learned a lot about habit formation that can mean the difference between success and watching it slowly fade away. Read on for what I’ve learned and what behavioral science tells us about creating healthy habits for the long-term.
When working to form a new habit, the first step is to create awareness around why you are seeking to make the change in the first place. For example, the goal of losing weight may be an initial motivator for changing your nutrition and exercise routine, but it's likely more accurate to say that the intention is to feel the best you can in your body. Focusing on this intention—to feel better in your body—can help serve you on a daily basis while you’re working toward your goal of weight loss. While setting goals is focused on the future, setting intentions keeps you grounded and present in the moment. As humans, we are hardwired for instant gratification and intentions help to fill that immediate need while working on a sustainable, long-term goal.
Research shows that how you frame the intention behind your goal for a new healthy habit is important. Those who create goals from a place of personal desire for self-improvement—as opposed to an external social pressure—are often more likely to find long-term success and meaningfully improve their quality of life. The bottom line is, it has to start with you and your desire to change for long-term success, and the intention needs to stem from something that inspires you on a daily basis. (Yes, wanting to eat more fiber -rich whole foods so that you have a complete bowel movement every morning counts!)
Whether it’s support from a family member, friend, team, support group, coach, or therapist, having cheerleaders to root you on and create accountability around your goals can increase your chances of sticking with it . When you're accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what you said you would do, you engage the power of social expectations—helping to fuel your likelihood of following through with forming a new healthy habit. This is oftentimes what makes Parsley Health members so likely to succeed with their health goals, as they have the support of a collaborative medical team—a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant, a health coach, and a care manager—to help guide their progress and check in on them throughout.
According to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology , an individual’s chance of reaching a goal increases even more when they share it with someone who has already achieved a similar goal. For example, you’d get the benefits from telling a friend who has run a marathon that you’re training for one, too—but perhaps not from sharing that goal with a non-runner. If no one you know has achieved your goal, choosing someone whose opinion you value is shown to be just as effective.
I’ve also seen in my work as a health coach that accountability doesn’t have to necessarily be with someone else. Some of my members are experts at creating “self-accountability” by enforcing daily to-dos that they ceremoniously check off a list, using wearable tracking devices to log their workouts, or using apps that trigger reminders throughout the day to ensure they’re staying committed. In today’s world of technology, an accountability partner might not look like a physical person but the results can be just as fruitful.
While making an action a habit requires routine and consistent contextual cues, life can sometimes throw your schedule off and force you to roll with the punches. Amidst your implementation of healthy habits, you’ll go on vacation, attend a party, and enjoy dinner out with friends—and you should. True success will be measured by your ability to engage in these activities without allowing them to derail you from your goals.
After all, healthy habits take time to develop and exactly how much time may be different for the individual person. Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit so while repetition is key in making the habit automatic, being flexible when you need to be and hopping right back into the pattern the next day can make all the difference for long-term success.
In my work with patients, I see that people often revert back to original habits and fall out of routine during times of stress or when their initial motivation dips. One member I was supporting at Parsley Health was working on meditating every night before bed; when she didn't, I encouraged her to write down why without repeating the same reasoning twice. Creating awareness around her resistance to engage in the habit and consistency in even how she handled not following through with it was key to her ultimate implementation of a nightly meditation practice—one she still sticks with today.
According to the American Psychological Association , people who set goals that are both stepwise and specific are 90 percent more likely to succeed. This is because in order for a good habit to become sustainable and enjoyable, getting started must not be too extreme or sudden. It should be made increasingly automatic. It is far more effective to advise a sedentary person to get off the subway one or two stops earlier to get in some extra steps than to walk the entire route—at least for their initial habit goal.
Aiming for small and manageable behavior changes is something I regularly encourage for my members at Parsley Health because failing off the bat with a goal that is too lofty can stop initial progress in its tracks. Specifically, I help members create “SMART” goals—a widely accepted goal setting practice that helps to clearly outline what, how, and when you plan want to achieve your goal. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. For example, walking 20 minutes three mornings per week after breakfast for the next month is a SMART goal, while just generally setting out to workout every day would be a general goal that’s less likely to be effectively implemented.
Small changes aren’t just a cop-out. Research shows that small changes add up and lead to meaningful outcomes—slight adjustments to daily nutrition such as reducing portion sizes by 200-300 calories or decreasing the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages per day by 1-2 servings can aid long-term weight loss and small amounts of light physical activity are more beneficial than none. Moreover, simpler actions become habitual more quickly and help to build a person’s momentum and confidence.
Because habits require stable context cues to become cemented into your routine, adding a new habit to a pre-existing one can be key. For example, taking your vitamin D drops after your morning cup of coffee allows the existing habit of coffee drinking to be the built-in cue that reminds you to take your vitamin D .
Habit stacking is a regular strategy I utilize with members in health coaching sessions. For one member that was really struggling with remembering to take her vitamin B12—an essential supplement for her because she had an MTHFR gene variant —we actually decided to physically tape her supplement bottle to her toothpaste after weeks of other failed approaches. Literally sticking together the habit of brushing her teeth and taking her vitamin B12 was what finally allowed her to succeed in taking her supplement every day.
While I’ve personally seen all of these healthy habit tips be successful in different people for different reasons, it’s true that not everyone engages in change or is motivated in the same way. The sticking of a new habit is all about taking the time to really understand what works for you—calling upon previous times you’ve had success in creating a new habit and digging deep to understand your current motivation behind making a new change.
Kelly Candela is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist with six years of experience in the health and wellness field, four of which have been spent right here at Parsley Health supporting members with everything from gut issues and autoimmune disease to cardiometabolic health concerns and fertility. She holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition from one of the leading science-based natural medicine schools in the country, Bastyr University, and completed her dietetic internship at Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, WA.